Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Maintain Identification, Even in Third-Person

When you’re writing prose from a first person POV, it’s easy to maintain identification: Your hero can only see what he can see, only hear what he can hear, only think what he can think. When you’re writing omniscient third-person, on the other hand, you’re free to jump from head to head, POV to POV. But a lot of fiction is written from limited third-person POV, which splits the difference.

This narrative voice can theoretically go anywhere because you’re merely on the hero’s shoulder, and not stuck in his head, but practically, in order for this sort of voice to work, you have to agree to limit yourself just as much as you would if you were in first-person: You’re nailed down on that shoulder and unable to move.

Most limited-3rd person is essentially the same as 1st person: the narrative voice is even privy to the hero’s thoughts, despite referring to the hero as he/she. The key to maintaining that sort of privileged access is that you have to be privy to the hero’s thoughts and only the hero’s thoughts.

It’s tempting to cheat. In one book, a hero was talking to a social worker, and it described something the social worker saw in the hero’s eyes, “She had seen that sort of look before.” This is a no-no. That’s flirting with entering the social worker’s head, which would break our full identification with the hero. Instead you have to say, from the hero’s point of view, “He saw that the social worker had an I-know-what-you’re-going-through face”. That’s the hero’s POV. That’s all the hero can know of the mind of the social worker: what he can see.

In an old post, I talked about the limitations George R. R. Martin imposed on himself while writing “Game of Thrones”: He had chosen his heroes and couldn’t go places they didn’t go. But it’s even more limited than that: even in the rooms he’s in, he can only know one character’s perspective on anything.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Demand Skeptical Heroes

You’ve created a fantastical plot. You just made it up, and your audience knows you just made it up, and now you’ve got to convince them that it’s true. Your audience is skeptical of your story, so they want at least one of your heroes or major supporting characters to feel the same.

Whatever fantastical element your story has, whether it’s an actual sci-fi or fantasy element, or just a conspiracy of some sort (which almost every story has, in some form), at least one of your heroes should roll his or her eyes at first, because that’s what your reader will be doing. As your hero is gradually convinced that the problem is real, your audience will be as well.

One of the most alienating things is when everybody gets on board with the plot too quickly, before the audience is ready. When you have a lone hero, that hero must be skeptical. When the hero has a close companion, the hero can be credulous while the companion is the doubter.

I’ve said before that one great way to make a plot is to ask “What if it’s all true?” You can bring your audience along in any direction, even giving them a plot that they would normally find offensive or outrageous, as long as at least one of the heroes starts off saying the same thing the audience says, “It can’t be true!”

One of the reason later season “X-Files” didn’t work is that it didn’t make any sense that Scully would be a skeptic anymore. She had been our way into the story, but now the whole story had gone around the bend, and the audience tended to just roll our eyes.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 4 on Dialogue is Up

If you subscribe to The Secrets of Story Podcast on your phone, you may notice that episode 4 appeared today! If not, you can stream it or download it above.

James and I wind up discussing two “Star Trek” scenes. First we discuss the one I transcribed and criticized here, in which Bones and Kirk celebrate Kirk’s birthday in Star Trek Beyond but then James points out that this is a knock-off of a very similar scene in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, so we take a look at that one to contrast it. I play the audio of it, but you can watch the video below:
Here are the two crazy things about this discussion:
  1. On the night we recorded it, it was the eve of James’s birthday, and we wound up drinking past midnight, so we were doing the same thing they’re doing.
  2. Someone on Facebook mentioned that today, the day I’m posting it, just happens to be James T. Kirk’s birthday! (But I’m sure you already knew that.)
All that and James has a story idea that you might want to take! I think it’s a pretty good episode! Give it a listen…

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

One Last Super-Cool Laika Bit

We’re finally going to post Podcast #4 soon, and I’m proud to say that it will be pretty-much entirely Laika-free. You’ll recall that, in the first podcast, I attempted to give away a story idea about Laika the Soviet Space Dog. Little did I suspect that my very own co-host would catch it, then come back in the second podcast with the news that he had written the idea himself as a 75 page screenplay. We then devoted our third episode to a dramatic reading and critique of that screenplay, and we’re now finally ready to move on…

…But wait! It turns out that James is not the only one to catch it! My brother listens to the show with his 10 year old daughter Alexa, and she, too, decided to try her hand at it, before episode #3 aired! I just recently got a copy and Alexa has consented to share it! If you tried out James’s epic take, then feel free to compare and contrast with this relatively brisk 6-page version.

If you’re up for one more take on Laika (and I could certainly understand why you wouldn’t be), check it out. I think it’s pretty great. She really captured the pathos of the opening, and she crafted a rousing finale.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Difference Between Drama and Melodrama is “Would It Make the News?”

I saw a lot of bad indie movies back in the day, but surely one of the most annoying was Blue Car. The main storyline involved a girl having an affair with her teacher, but there was also a subplot –a subplot!- in which, if I remember correctly, her seven year old sister commits suicide.

This is a note I give all the time: It’s too much. I love a good ripe melodrama as much as the next man, but melodrama involves a certain over-the-top tone. Blue Car was played as a straight drama, but the events were beyond the limits imposed by that genre.

Here’s the difference: Would it make the news? Seven year old girls don’t often commit suicide. It’s a huge deal. There would be think pieces about it. But in this movie, it’s so unremarkable that it’s not even the main topic of the movie.

I’ve said before that Moonlight was a little too bleak for me, but it’s a good example of how far you can push drama without going into melodrama. A boy getting beaten up by one boy and then breaking a chair over the back of another boy is violent and shocking, especially if you know the real circumstances, but it wouldn’t make the news, so it’s drama, not melodrama.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Hate Therapists

One of the best scripts I read had one glaring flaw: the hero’s best friend was a therapist, and diagnosed his problems with insight. Audiences hate therapists. They do our job for us. It always feels like the writer is inserting himself or herself into the story to tell us what's really going on psychologically. We want to be the ones who figure out the subtext.

Everybody loves Psycho, but everybody hates the last scene, where the therapist arrives and explains what it all really means.

I recommended to that writer to have the friend just be a normal schlub, giving amateur advice filtered through his own needs, prejudices, and flaws.

I told you that some of these would be short!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your First Sentence is Probably on Page Four Right Now

Oh shit, you have to start writing, but how do you do that? Do you really have to right to create your own world? To create something from nothing? How can you make these character talk when they haven’t talked to you yet?

The tendency is to just kind of dump the characters on the page and let them mill around for a bit while you get to know them. Eventually they clear their throats and begin to speak, which freaks you out, because you created them, but soon, wonder of wonders, they come to life. You’re doing the work: You’re creating someone the audience can believe in, care about, and invest in.

Now it’s time to go back and cut out the milling around. Slice out your first four pages or so. If it’s first person, cut out the pages of the character introducing himself to us. If it’s third person, cut out the character going through a typical day. Start when the story starts.

(One of the best things you can do is jump to the first decision. Choices, more than anything else, show us who a character is, in a way that “Hi, here’s who I am” just can’t accomplish.)

There’s often a great opening sentence hiding on page four that you wrote when you were feeling comfortable and not so formal. Slice out the rest, including that first sentence you labored over for a month.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writers Aren’t Set Decorators

You don’t want to create a generic world. You want to include some visual details that make your world unique and interesting. So you create a very unique-looking world in your mind, with fascinating costumes, props and set decoration.

But now it’s time to describe that world, and anxiety sets in. How can you get your audience to see what you see? You’ve created these great non-generic visuals in your own head, so how do you show them all to your audience? The answer is that you can’t. You can only suggest what you see, in a few broad strokes. There simply isn’t time, whether you’re writing prose or a script, to describe the beautiful world in your mind.

Whether you’re writing prose or a script, you are not the set decorator, you’re not the costume designer, and you’re not the prop designer. You’re the writer. You can, and should, give us a few salient details about the objects, the room, and the clothes, and then let each reader imagine the rest, even if that means they’ll never see all the great details you see.

If you’re writing a script, once they buy your script, they’ll hire other professionals to create those details. If you’re writing prose, then it’ll only ever be up to the reader, so let’s hope they have a good visual imagination.

Are you picturing a fascinating tapestry behind the throne? Well too bad, because unless it’s super-necessary to the plot, you don’t have time to describe it. Your reader wants the plot to get going and keep moving, and they have no time for your tapestries.

J.K. Rowling was lucky.  When they adapted her books, they revered her vision, which means that they asked her to help them fill in the rest of the details that she kept in her head and never had time to set down on the page, so that she could finally make her world come alive the way she saw it.  For most of us, we just have to trust our readers and/or the filmmakers who eventually adapt the work.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How to Get Ahead: Never Be in a Hurry to Send It, And Never Send an Outline

Someone important has agreed to read your stuff: Hallelujah! You want to take advantage of this opportunity, and you want to strike when the iron is hot. Of course, you had hoped to take one more pass at it to fix some glaring problems, but you can’t let an opportunity like this pass by!

Nope. Stop yourself. Don’t send it yet. Even if they said they want it right away. Even if they said they have a brief window of time to read it. When they say they want it right away, they really mean “I want it as soon as it’s perfect, however long that may take.” If they read it and they don’t absolutely love it, they won’t cut you any slack and say “But at least it got here on time, so that counts for something.”

Just about every opportunity in this business is a one-time opportunity. There are thousands of would-be writers out there, swarming around. If someone decides you don’t have the goods, they’re not going to check back in later to see if the goods have suddenly developed.

So make them wait for it. If they were willing to read it during this window of time, they might also be willing to read it during their next window of time, so you have to take that chance. Only ever send out work that seems great to you.

One more point: Never send them a numbered outline. You’re telling a story, not a series of disconnected beats. An outline automatically reads as “And then, and then, and then…” Force yourself to rewrite your outline as a prose treatment, and it will be more likely to read as “And so, and so and so…”, which is what you want.